It’s job search season for students and fresh graduates, which means a bump in media interest in internships. Barely a decade ago, we’d expect news articles to include tips for landing a “dream internship” or to quote an employer boasting that unpaid interns are economically efficient for firms. But today, the media coverage generally takes a different tone. It used to be typical for mainstream media articles to endorse unpaid internships, positioning them as essential for standing out in a hyper-competitive labour market. But today, articles about internships emphasize class-based exclusion in the intern economy, challenge assumptions about meritocracy, and expose employers who break minimum wage regulations. What’s behind the pivot in public opinion that has seen internships shift from a benign rite of passage to a lightning rod workers’ rights issue? Activism. Since 2010, an intern rights movement has been remarkably successful at winning victories for interns, drawing attention …
The cumulative effect of serial internships and zero-wages is the hardening of established social exclusions in the labour market, the devaluation of labour, wage depression across the labour economy, and the acclimatization of a generation of indebted workers to hustling from gig to gig with few expectations of their employers. Internships are, then, an entry point for interrogating contested conditions of life, labour, and learning at a historical moment when precarity is an encroaching structure of feeling.
Internships have gained critical attention in Canada, thanks largely to the efforts of intern labour activists, who have generated media coverage, lobbied and advised politicians, conducted education and outreach, and advocated for an end to the proliferation of unpaid internships in Canada. This roundtable interview with intern labour activists Ella Henry, Andrew Langille, Joshua Mandryk, and Claire Seaborn was conducted by Nicole Cohen and Greig de Peuter in Toronto on March 1, 2015. Follow up interviewing was conducted over e-mail in May 2015. The interview has been edited and condensed.
“Fuck your unpaid internship.” This was one of the more colourful slogans scrawled on a sign at the peak of the Occupy movement. Held up by young people who stand to lose large from financial-crisis fallout, placards like these are refreshingly frank refusals of the mantra that we must be willing to do “more for less” nowadays. A 21st-century update on Bartleby’s famous reply to the duties assigned by his boss – “I’d prefer not to” – the intern invective expresses the frustration bubbling among youth facing mounting student debt and diminishing prospects for employment.